Dressed like a monk, Kui stood out. So, Chi Zhen gave him a clean shirt and pants to wear. He felt odd wearing anything but his robes. Su-Yee smiled at him, and that went a long way to erase the bad feelings he had for the new clothes. The three of them walked toward the mayor's palace on the east side of the city, and tried to act natural.
Kui had kept his hand close to his sword. He had given Su-Yee one, but she didn't know how to use it. Chi Zhen had three interlocking steel nunchakus hidden in his sleeve. The night life in Venara started almost the minute the sun went down, and the city rose into the open air. Kui had never been so relieved to see the night sky. He had tried to rest during the day, but couldn't while the walls seemed to be creeping in on him.
Parties startied, vendors began cooking, and the city came alive around them. A huge mass of people, monsters and unnameable creatures poured out of the various buildings. Chi Zhen pushed Su-Yee and Kui to the side of the street, so the crowd could pass them.
“I can't believe I never heard of this city,” Su-Yee said, looking around the city unshackled for the first time.
“It's strange that so little is spoken of this city. The curse must be real,” said Kui.
The crowd rumbled past them. Only two guards remained at the entrance of the palace, down the street from them. Chi Zhen shook his head.
“I don't believe in the curse. The secret is kept another way.”
The guards stood at attention at the end of the street. Chi Zhen looked at them while he continued to talk to Kui.
“No one leaves the city.”
“No one?” asked Su-Yee.
Chi Zhen shook his head.
“Until tonight,” Kui tried to sound brave. Su-Yee smiled.
“Oh please,” said Chi Zhen.
“There are only two of them.” Said Kui “Lets go.”
“They are immortals.” Chi Zhen smiled. “Take their heads.”
Chi Zhen jumped, lifting into the air with ease. He glided with his lightness kungfu onto the roof of the small building that was across from the palace gates. Chi Zhen signaled Kui to move forward.
“Wait here,” Kui smiled at Su-Yee.
“Kui, if you survive this, you'll have to teach me to fight.”
Kui saluted and walked down the alley towards the palace. One of the guards walked towards him and they met face to face. The guard was large, muscles bulged under his black uniform.
“State your purpose!”
“Gladly,” Kui smiled and kicked the man in the stomach. He bent over just enough, and Kui swung his sword down and into his neck. The blade stopped halfway through the nape. Kui's arm shook; he didn't have the strength to push the sword straight through in one blow. Over the guard's shoulder, he saw the second guard running toward him. Despite the pain and the swordblade in his neck, the first guard tried to pull his own sword out of its sheath.
Chi Zhen dropped out of the sky and landed behind the second guard. He tried to react in time, but Chi Zhen wrapped his nunchakus around his neck and brought him to the ground. Chi Zhen reached down and pulled out the guard's sword. Kui couldn't see it but he heard a sword strike--then watched as the second guard's head tumbled to the ground.
He stared into the pained eyes of the guard, and gave the sword a final push. The guard's head sliced off, and the body fell to the ground.
Chi Zhen and Su-Yee both called out as archers appeared on the second level. Chi Zhen was protected under the balcony. The arrows snapped off their bowstrings, it took split seconds, but years of Shaolin training came alive inside Kui. He slowed the moment down and watched the arrows inch toward him; he lifted his sword without taking his gaze off the arrows. One at a time, he knocked the arrows out of the air.
Su-Yee covered her eyes, but in a matter of seconds she heard Kui knock four arrows out of the air, in rapid succession. She opened her eyes in time to see the archers launch a second round, and Kui move quicker than lightning, knocking them down. Chi Zhen jumped straight up to the second floor balcony and swung his sword at the archers. Two went down immediately, and the last two turned their bows on him. Chi Zhen swung out and sliced their bows in half. The archers were defenseless without their weapons. They turned to run.
Chi Zhen jumped and kicked one of them on the back of the head, knocking him into his friend. Chi Zhen walked up to them, kneeled down, and applied pressure points to keep them asleep. He leaned over the balcony just in time to see Kui run inside.
Inside: now they just had to find Xu.
Shun held his eyeball around the corner. Down the end of the next hall there were two tigers who sat by the doors to the outer chamber. Shun pulled his eye back. Xu waited just behind him.
“Two guards, there is just one thing.”
“Oh yeah, what is that?”
“They are tigers.”
“Tigers? As in big cat...tigers.”
Shun nodded. They both knew they had to go past the tigers. That was the quickest way out. At least that seemed the most logical. Shun would have turned around and looked for Tian if Xu agreed to it. He wanted to go back and find her, even if it meant encountering her in an impossible battle. Xu almost jumped out of his skin when he noticed Shun's eyeball within inches of his face.
“I can see it on your face, master Xu,” Shun whispered.
Xu put up his finger to silence him.
Shun didn't stop. “You want to help her.”
“I want to complete our mission.”
Xu tipped his head around the corner. The tiger closest to him was licking his paw. It stopped, and the tiger began to purr with a deep rumble. Xu pulled his head back. Too late, they heard the tiger coming down the hall. Xu squeezed the grip on his stolen sword and turned the corner. The tiger was already in the air. Xu dropped to the floor and it flew over him. Orange and black striped wings beat fast, and the tiger spun in the hallway.
“Magical beast!” Shun yelled as he searched his bag. The other tiger flew down the hall at Xu. The flying tigers had no interest in Shun. They both swatted at Xu as he twisted and turned on the ground, swinging the sword when he could. Shun kept searching his bag.
“What are you doing? Help me!”
Kui heard fighting on the other side the the heavy wooden doors he and Chi Zhen stood in front of. Their eyes got wide when they heard Xu yelling.
“What are you doing? Help me!”
Kui kicked open the door and his eyes grew wide at the sight. Two winged tigers were flying up and down the hallway. They took swipes at Xu who laid on the floor, swinging his sword upward. One of the tigers turned toward them. Its wings beat fast as it prepared to come at them. The large cat roared. Chi Zhen looked at Kui.
“Get Master Xu out of the city!”
Chi Zhen ran three steps, and jumped into the air. The tiger flew towards him. With only one tiger to worry about, Xu pushed himself into the air, towards the magical beast. Chi Zhen pointed his sword, and was surprised by the tiger's speed. His swordpoint penetrated the tiger's chest before they collided in mid air. He felt extended claws rip at his skin. Chi Zhen screamed out in pain. They rolled on the ground and Chi Zhen felt the beast change. The set of claws that ripped at his skin became nothing more than a hand. When they finished rolling on the ground, Chi Zhen's sword was skewered through a very human looking body. The shape-shifter had died.
Xu dropped his sword, and grabbed the two front paws of the flying tiger. He slammed the tiger against the stone wall and heard hollow bones in one of its wings crack. They both dropped to the ground. Xu felt the strength of the tiger swell.
“Stolen beast, be gone!” Shun urged while he held a bamboo scroll up near the tiger. The tiger did not so much roar, as let out a feminine scream.
Xu felt his arms weaken. He could not hold back the claws for much longer. “Put the scroll on her head!” he screamed.
Shun put the scroll on the tigers head. Still it struggled with Xu.
“Say the words!”
“Stolen beast, be gone!”
Another human scream...and then the tiger spoke.
“No!” The hair on the tiger's arms retreated, the vast muscles shrunk. The wings turned to ash and sprinkled down on them in a drizzle of dust. When the hair in her face fell away, Xu had to shake his head to see her. He now held a young, naked woman by the wrists.
“No!” She screamed again, in sorrow.
Xu dropped her to the floor. She no longer had interest in guarding the next passage of the palace. Instead, she curled up in a fetal position and cried over being human again. Xu shook out his sore arms and looked down the hall at Kui. He was surprised the young man had made it this far. Closer down the hall, Chi Zhen lay with an expanding pool of blood under him. Xu ran to his side.
Chi Zhen coughed up blood and smiled at his old friend. “There is a greater evil here, I can feel it.”
Xu squeezed his hand. Chi Zhen was losing strength in his grip every second. Kui walked behind Xu and chanted a mantra with his beads. Shun tried to comfort the tiger-woman, but she continued to sob.
“We learned some things. Don't you worry Chi Zhen, we're going to warn the emperor.”
Chi Zhen smiled at his old friend again.
“Find Buddha,” Chi Zhen said and then coughed a mouthful of blood. His eyes went glassy. Xu closed them, and then shut his own. he squeezed Chi Zhen's hand, and felt it grow cold.
Shun rubbed his old hands on the tiger-woman's sweaty, short black hair. She pulled away and covered her breasts with her hands.
“Don't touch me.”
Kui looked away embarrassed. Xu just stared at his dead friend. Shun held his hands up. The tiger-woman stared at his empty eye sockets and promised herself never to forget this old man. He was some kind of wizard who cursed her back to her human body.
“Who are you?” she screamed.
“Shun--the story-teller,” Shun bowed.
“Bastard!” She tried to stand, but she was not too familiar with her human legs anymore. She fell and broke out in a fresh wave of tears.
“I'll get you some day. I will get you. I swear.”
“I'm sorry...I didn't mean to...”
Xu appeared behind Shun, and tugged on his shoulder.
“Of course you did. She would have killed us.”
“But...” Shun couldn't find the words.
“But nothing. Forget about her.”
Shun stood up and followed as Kui and Xu walked toward the front gates of the palace.
“I can't believe we escaped. This will make an amazing scroll.”
Suddenly, alarms went off. Gongs, bells, then shouts could be heard from deep inside the palace. Xu took a deep breath, and cursed.
“Well, it's not us...the alarms are from deep in the palace.”
“Not us,” Xu agreed.
“Tian...” Shun said, and covered his mouth.